Council tax rise not ruled out as option to help balance Fife Council books

Bbalancing the budget during the most difficult financial period in the council's history will be very challenging
Bbalancing the budget during the most difficult financial period in the council's history will be very challenging

A draft budget drawn up to tackle “the most difficult financial challenge in Fife Council’s history” is still far from the finished article.

So Labour administration leader David Ross has called on councillors from all political parties, trade unions, the council’s workforce and the public to help shape the final document.

Until mid-December, the council had been expecting to have to deal with a budget gap of £21m during 2016/17.

But following the Scottish Government’s own budget – and a 3.6 per cent cut in the council’s grant – that increased to £38m.

That means cuts to services which previously wouldn’t have been considered are now back on the table.

And there’s even the possibility of a council tax rise – perhaps in the region of 7.5 per cent – although this would have consequences in terms of funding from the Scottish Government.

Councillor Ross said: “We always knew funding was going to be tight, but as a result of John Swinney’s budget statement on December 16, things have got a lot worse.

“There is no easy way to make the savings that are now required. This will have a huge impact on services and jobs in Fife.

“The draft budget sets out the scale of the problem we face and a number of options for how we tackle it.

“It is not set in tablets of stone. Given the limited time there has been since the Scottish budget statement, the draft is less firm than has been the case in the past.

“It should therefore be regarded more as a baseline with further options for examination and debate.”

Proposed cuts in the draft budget include reductions in maintenance of roads and buildings, saving around £2m; a range of reductions in parks and countryside management; reductions in sports operations and development; ending the provision of free fruit in nurseries and schools, saving £290,000; reductions in the taxi card scheme, saving £350,000; and reducing the supply of biobags for food waste, saving £200,000.

There is also a saving of £1.5m attributed to a review of early years education.

The administration says it wants to protect education as much as possible, but with this service making up around half of all the council’s expenditure, it can’t be exempt and has to make a contribution towards the savings.

There is recognition of the Scottish Government’s increase in funding of £250m for health and social care, with Fife expected to receive an estimated £16.8m.

But the administration has also stressed that the practice in recent years of providing temporary one-off funding from the council’s reserves to cover overspends in this area will no longer be an option.

Cllr Ross said the challenge over the next four weeks was to identify from the options in the draft budget – or from any further realistic ideas that might come forward – a package of savings that will close the budget gap for 2016/17 and at least make some contribution towards narrowing the gap for the following year.

“There are many individual savings included in these proposals that, in other circumstances, we would not consider,” he said.

“However, the harsh reality is that if there are proposals that we, or any other political groups represented on the council, or indeed anyone who wants to comment on this draft budget, wishes to reject, then they must offer an alternative saving that would still allow the council to approve a balanced budget.”

The draft budget will be published on Fife Council’s website, and contributions to the debate will be accepted until early next month. The full council will meet to approve a budget on February 11.

Cautious welcome as education cuts are rejected

Fife EIS has given a cautious welcome to the Labour administration’s decision not to include in its draft budget a number of suggested cuts to the eduation service.

David Farmer, Fife EIS publicity officer, said: “Proposals to cut learning support service staff and pupils support assistants, increase class sizes, remove the music service and potentially create a charitable trust to administer education and children’s service appear to have been rejected.

“That said, we are confused about just exactly which savings will appear in the budget to be set on February 11 and about how we engage with the budget process between now and then.”

Proposed savings from the education service in the draft budget include a reduction in funding for the music service and changes to early years provision, which Mr Farmer said would clearly dilute these services and have serious implications for children, their parents and the union’s members.

He added: “We remain committed to protecting the provision of education in Fife even though it appears the local authority is trying to essentially play for time.”